|Norgay memorial: Dan pauses at the stupa for Tenzing Norgay, the most famous Sherpa in Nepal.|
The chill of the Khumbu
Saturday, Oct. 16
The morning is blustery and cold, and it turns out to be the best part of the day.
My pack feels heavier than usual this morning, as we set off up the long, steep stone stairs that take us to the top-most tier of Namche’s paths. A fine mist has settled over the village, over the valley, over the Khumbu and every so often a slight breeze kicks up shards of cold rain and stings our hands and face.
I’m wearing the same set of clothes I’ve had on since Lukla (I only carry two sets, and a third change of underwear). It’s made of fast drying material, and I’ve tucked my shirt and pants deep into my sleeping bag each night, so it’s dry. But I’m beginning to notice the smell.
The set of semi-independent Europeans pass us only about 20 minutes into the day. We’d criss-cross paths with some or all of them for most of the journey, but for today, they pass us once and we don’t see them again until Tengboche.
Yesterday, we attacked the ridge directly, gaining altitude quickly to force acclimatization. Today, our plan is to move around the long ridge, a thousand feet above the river, at a mellow rate of ascent. The first couple miles are gentle and the trail is an engineering wonder, more graded than anything we’ve encountered in the White Mountains.
|Misty mountain majesty: The mountain views are replaced by the mystery of the mist.|
In some areas, where there would normally be a cliff, trail engineers have designed retaining walls to prop up the path, complete with culverts to move water underneath and prevent erosion. It is a thing of beauty, a great wall of Namche, a super-highway 12,000 feet in the air where yak and man and horse and chicken can move, sometimes two or three abreast.
We are able to pay somewhat abnormal attention to the details of the trail because we can see nearly nothing else. The guides describe this section of the trek as being some of the most stunning, with searing mountain walls in every direction, and the majesty of the roaring river below.
We see none of that.
Every once in a while, the mist rolls hard enough to clear a distant peak or we catch a glimpse of a ridge shooting straight up from the fog, but most times it doesn’t even last long enough to move my camera to my eye.
And yet, it is all beautiful and mysterious. Hikers and porters pass with few words, the normal chatty trail talk seems to be subdued in this strange gossamer world, a cathedral of claustrophobia amid unseen wide open spaces.
Far in the distance around several turns and bends in the trail, we see the vague outline of a large stupa. It seems to protrude out into the ether world, its crown like a beacon in the mist.
It is the Tenzing Norgay chorten, dedicated to the most famous Sherpa in the world. Built in 2003 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Norgay and Hillary’s momentous summit of Everest, it stands on a corner of the path, enormous against the clouds, as large a stupa as Norgay’s reputation in Nepal.
In the mist and clouds, at this place of near divine worship toward a man of little means who became a symbol to the world of Sherpa moral and physical fiber, we rest.
There are other trekkers here, and a porter stop, and just as we reach the stupa a yak train comes clanging by, but the spot feels as though it maintains a higher karmic value in the universe – a place of reflection amid the traffic, and a moment to consider exactly what all of this is about to begin with.
|Tengzing’s weather -worn stupa|
There’s a lot of actual history lost in the myth of Norgay and Hillary’s famous summit. To his very great credit, Hillary spent the remainder of his life giving back to the Khumbu, building schools, educating the Sherpa people, creating greenhouse and farming co-ops. But even a general glance at the actual story of that first summit of Everest makes it clear who the stronger, and perhaps more humble, climber really was.
In fact, Hillary was nearly an afterthought in the famous summit, compared to Norgay.
First though, the Baron. One of the names lost in the shine of the summit accomplishment is the guy who got Hillary and Norgay there to begin with, Baron Henry Cecil John Hunt. Hillary was not the leader of the 1953 expedition, Hunt was. A life long military man, Hunt was selected to lead the team by SHAEF, the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force. Ah, the British and their titles!
He was already 43 by the time the team set up Base Camp, and in typical stiff upper lip fashion, he never even considered himself for a shot at the summit. Back then, an expedition was considered a success if even a single member of the team set foot on a summit – a far cry from today’s competitive obsession with getting as many clients up there as possible.
And Hunt ran the expedition like he was directing an invading Army. There were more than 400 people on the “team” and over 350 of them were porters who carried the 10,000 pounds of baggage from Kathmandu (there was no Lukla airport back then). They arrived in March, but didn’t even get close to the South Col until late May.
And again, history diverges from myth. Hunt selected his two strongest climbers to make the first push to the summit – Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans. And they came so close! Evans’ oxygen system failed him only 300 vertical feet from the summit of Everest, and the pair turned back.
I’ve often thought about those two, 300 feet from lifelong fame and fortune, making the decision to turn around and share the information and path they broke out with the next team. Later, many members of the team said they were unaware that what they were attempting would lead to such glory, that they were simply team mates working on a single goal.
But they knew.
So, enter Hillary and Norgay. New Zealand born Edmund Hillary was a baby, strong and full of ability, but with limited expedition experience. Norgay? It was his seventh attempt at the summit of Everest. One year earlier, as a member of a Swiss expedition, Norgay made it to 28,215 feet, the record at the time. He was already the most famous Sherpa in the world in 1953, and it was Hunt who choose Norgay to pair with Hillary. Not that Hillary minded as just a few weeks earlier, he had slipped and fallen into a crevasse, and it was Norgay who secured the rope and saved Hillary’s life.
The two men did not make the attempt alone, they had a support crew of three other men who went up to the South Col with them, and set up high camp, keeping them fed and warm and ready for the eventual push to the top. It took two days before all five men climbed up to 27,900 feet and helped Hillary and Norgay set up their final camp.
The next day the two set off wearing 30 pound packs. Remember, there were no fixed ropes then, and when they reached the 40 foot rock face right below the summit, Hillary free climbed that sucker and it’s now known as the Hillary step.
They reached the summit, together Hillary claimed, at 11:30 a.m. on May 29, 1953. The final historic irony of that day was that the only picture in existence of that momentous occasion is of Norgay on the summit, his ice ax flying the flags of Nepal and Britain. Norgay did not know how to use a camera, and Hillary later said that he felt the summit of Everest was not the place to teach him.
The two men achieved instant world-wide fame, though the British government politely declined to Knight Norgay. Later, in his autobiography, Norgay gave Hillary credit for setting foot first on the summit. Hillary denied this and went to his grave insisting the two men summited together.
“It has been a long road,” Norgay wrote. “From a mountain coolie, a bearer of loads, to a wearer of coats with rows of medals who is carried about in planes and worries about income tax.”
I sit for a few minutes at Norgay’s stupa wondering about this man, who in pictures from the 70s wears plaid suit coats and feathered fedoras, and is always smiling. The wind and haze lift up off the valley floor, and porters and trekkers amble by. Some are oblivious to the memory they are passing. Others, like myself, stand quietly for a moment in front of the plaque, reading about the “Tigers of the Snow” and stew in their own thoughts about why they are here.
|Tag or wisdom: Norgay’s stupa bears this message.|
Someone, in large red letters, has tagged the stupa with the symbol of Lovism, a circular spiral, extending up and a message that reads, “Peace is possible only by true Love.”
That seems about right for here and for now. We snack on yak cheese, gulp down some water, still warm from having been boiled that morning, and as the mist seems to get even thicker and our packs seem to get even heavier, we leave Norgay behind and turn our feet toward Tengboche.
A few trail spurs later, and we’re on the north side of the Namche plateau. If the skies were to clear the whole valley would be open before us, with views, presumably all the way to Tengboche and beyond to Everest. But we see nothing. In Kenjoma I stop for a quick cup of terrible coffee, before we drop through a patch of rhododendrons to a deep cleft in the side of the hill. The trail swings us back around and suddenly we are dropping down into the valley. We pass through Sanasa where an important trail junction directs some trekkers west toward Gokyo and the Cho La Pass. Next time, I think, next time, I will move in that direction.
For now, we continue a relentless descent, down, down and down we roll, past Lawichasa and Tashinga, tiny mountain hamlets with smokey momo huts and decaying lodges where the children stand in the doorways and the women of the lodges hustle to keep fires burning in the damp air.
We lose 1,000 feet and suddenly there’s the Milk River again, roaring like a locomotive. At river’s edge is the village of Phunki Thenga, or as we call it, Funky Tango. Little more than a rest stop, Funky Tango consists of two tiny crowded lodges. We reach the lodge just as the weather goes bad for good, and the rain begins to come down with authority.
It is cold, and the place feels tired, and moisture begins to seep into the folds of my clothes. My sweat becomes cold, and my legs feel wooden.
We have to make up that lost altitude to reach Tengboche, but right now I just want to sit and give my knees a break. Jim’s MS crew is already in the Cozy Garden Lodge which at that moment is anything but cozy or garden like, but we don’t care. My pack crashes to the floor and a few people slide over to make room for us at a bench near the door. It’s packed in there, trekkers are elbow to elbow, each of them looking anxiously out the window as the rain continues and the temperature drops.
No one is staying there that night, but no one wants to hike up that hill either.
|A much needed rest: We take a moment to record our break before climbing up to Tengboche.|
We order noodle soup and tea, figuring the wait for such simple food would be short. We’re right, as a large pot seems to be ready and waiting. The iron stove is roaring in the small kitchen and flames lick out the sides as the lodge owner and either his daughter or wife struggle to keep the food coming.
I warm my cold hands on the side of the bowl and breath in the deep stocky aroma of onions, cabbage and carrots.
The soup bowl is dirty and chipped and the onions and carrots crunch as I bite them, but it doesn’t matter. I’m chilled and dreading that climb and the soup is warm and the onions are sharp. I don’t even bother checking the silverware anymore, and three heaping spoonfuls into my lunch I can feel my energy and morale returning. I find myself devouring the soup, slurping it down in an veggie orgy of tingly goodness. I tip the bowl up to my lips once the noodles are gone and drink the remaining broth as an offering to that wet, muddy hill that sits waiting for us outside the window. I discover Meena has downed her soup even faster than I and we share a wordless laugh as our energy and enthusiasm return in that beat up truck stop with its dirty dishes, and cracked windows at the bottom of a massive ravine.
|Soup is good food: Simple, warm and fresh.|
By this time, most of the other trekkers have left and we’re able to take our time gearing up for what’s ahead. I strip off my now dirty and wet shirt and replace it with a warmer techwick. I tuck my pants into my wool socks in an effort to keep out the water, and decide to begin the climb wearing a light LL Bean wind breaker, figuring the effort of the climb would warm me enough to keep my body temperature up, while my wide brimmed rain hat would negate somewhat the dampness from above.
We descend down to a thick, well built steel and wood bridge, only a few feet from the river, cross and begin our climb up.
|A low as you can go: A Yak train crosses the river and begins the 1,000 foot climb back up.|
There are no villages here, no rest stops and very little cover. After about twenty minutes of a somewhat tree covered ascent, the trail attacks the slope in short, steep switchbacks and the rain comes down in sheets. I tip my head into the wind, but it doesn’t matter.
Before long the hard pack become slick and a light brown fluid mixture of mud and yak dung create a river of ooze as we navigate the ever steepening climb.
On an open section, I squeeze under some branches of an overhanging tree, and pull out my heavy Gortex. It’s something I wanted to wait on, but I’m just too cold and I know what hypothermia feels like. I have no intention of ending this journey because I’m too stubborn to take the time to get warm.
With both of us layered up, we continue on, and after another 30 minutes the slope moderates and we swing around one final switchback and there it is. A house sized kani gate marks the entrance to Tengboche.
We’re tired and wet and cold, and as we drag ourselves through the gate. At 12,700, it’s the highest either of us has ever been, but we feel no joy. Instead, the cold sting of the village’s plateau wind hits us and it is just a miserable place.
Sheets of clouds swirl down into Tengboche and we stand there for a moment trying to orient ourselves.
Earlier, our lodge owner in Namche had called ahead to a place owned by his sister called the Trekkers Lodge and made arrangements for us to stay there. Now, as the wind and rain continue and it begins to get dark, we just want to find a warm stove and maybe some momos.
Without even paying attention to the giant monastery in the center of town, we turn left, and head through a small grove of trees and brush and make our way to the edge of the plateau.
The Trekkers Lodge is a ramshackle collection of tin and plywood rooms stuck together like broken Lego’s. A horse stands in the middle of the path, its head down, wet and angry looking.
My heart sinks. After the luxury of The Yak in Namche, and the grueling three hour mud climb, The Trekkers Lodge is not what we had hoped. The inside is not any better. Smoke pours from the badly ventilated stove in the middle of the room, coating the eating area in a thin layer of haze. The walls are paper thin and the kitchen nearly medieval in design and function. One of the Europeans we met yesterday and who passed us earlier in the day is bent over a broken stone wall near the door, retching, her companion patting her on the back trying to ease her suffering.
Even worse, in our eagerness to just get a room and get warm, we make a terrible mistake – Meenakshi asks for the room in Nepali.
The owner, thinking her to be either a presumptuous porter or, even worse, a local, hands her a key and walks off without a word, and refuses to give her blankets.
Our “room” is a horror. Hanging precipitously on the edge of the plateau cliff like a tin shed, the tiny room barely fits two. Reached only from the outside we have to hug the edge of the building, stepping over rain buckets and rocks. The room is musty and dank, the mattresses are wet and the walls are crawling with spiders.
We are prepared for discomfort, but this is just dangerous.
We dump our gear, and walk back across the plateau. There are a half dozen lodges in Tengboche, and they are all booked.
We’re out of options. But as we left The Trekkers Lodge I noticed that several of the rooms abutting the dining area were unoccupied. While not much warmer, at least the occupants would not have to worry about falling off a cliff while taking a pee break in the middle of the night.
So, I act like a westerner, and without Meenakshi at my side, I explain in a loud voice to the lodge owner that our room is overrun with spiders, we have no blankets even though I saw an unused pile near the stairs and as a paying American I would like an upgrade right this minute, pretty please.
Without a word, he gives me everything I ask, and I suddenly feel both victorious and like a jerk at the same time.
No matter, at least tonight there will be no spiders.
Far and few between: The valley is strange and mysterious and beautiful in the clouds.
Join us next week, Dec. 23 as we explore the Tengboche Monastery in a special sidebar, The Busiest Ghost Town.
Complete Chapter Five photos can be found here: The Chill of the Khumbu.